The Beauty of Being Different

The Beauty of Being Different

Alan Turing, the mastermind that cracked the Nazi Enigma code, is credited with helping the Allies win World War II.  But was he a mastermind, or simply someone with a different kind of ability?

Would it surprise you that Alan Turing was autistic? 

Although Turing was not diagnosed in his lifetime, his mathematical genius and social lack of grace fits the profile for autism spectrum disorder (ASD).   As his story, made famous in the movie The Imitation Game, illustrates, society can sometimes benefit when it gives a voice to those who think differently. Until Turing arrived on the scene, no one perceived the need for a computer.   Instead, they simply thought of the task in more direct terms – the need to crack the code.   It took a truly different and beautiful kind of mind to come up with that profound and consequential solution.

So the real question is, “Are we losing out on the millions of other talented minds that occupy this space known as autism?”  There are over 70 million people diagnosed with autism around the world, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  In the US alone, the number of people with ASD is projected to top 3 million by 2020.  But the unfortunate consequence of that number is that experts estimate that between 70 and 90% of them are unemployed or at least underemployed.

Although many people associate ASD with limited intelligence and social inelegance, the truth is that almost half of those diagnosed with ASD are of average or above-average intelligence.  Who knows what lurks in those beautiful minds?  Maybe there’s a cure for cancer that the rest of us can’t see, or some simple solution to world hunger being overlooked because of society’s inability to bring this hidden potential to fruition.

But few people diagnosed with ASD really get the kind of help they really need to live more independent lives, obtain higher levels of employment, or even establish a better quality of life.  Less than 1% of the funding for ASD goes to programs for adolescents and adults diagnosed with ASD.  Instead, most spending is on research into the causes of the syndrome and on programs for children.  That society doesn’t recognize the need to prepare these ASD individuals for a more productive life seems rather tragic.

But the story isn’t over just yet. 

Recently, experts have recognized that people with ASD are quite uniquely fitted for the field of cybersecurity.  And as the world witnesses the rise of cyber terrorists, cyber criminals, and even hostile cyber states, experts are projecting losses to exceed $2 trillion by 2019.  Yet because of the complexity and detailed nature of cybersecurity, the number of unfilled jobs will likely reach 1 million by the end of 2017.

However, experts have discovered that 75% of cognitively able ASD individuals have aptitudes and interests that are well suited for these careers in cybersecurity.   A few innovative firms like Microsoft and SAP are already piloting programs for hiring people with ASD to fill sophisticated IT positions. And in addition, The Milken Institute and The Gates Foundation are also funding valuable employment and research programs that are aligned with these pilot program offerings.

So the story hasn’t ended yet.   Alan Turing’s abilities not only helped us win a war and fundamentally created the viability for computers – that same ability may be at the foundation of what lies ahead for all of us in this next chapter of world history.  We label this phenomena the beauty of being different.

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